Illusions and excess of contradictions

K. G. Subramanyan is a multi-faceted personality with scholarly as well as artistic attributes. He is a thinker, a writer, a teacher, a muralist and a sculptor, all rolled in one. The list of his creative abilities can be stretched further if one takes into account the fact that he is also a set designer and a maker of toys. The exhibition of his recent 30/21.5cm reverse paintings in gouache and oils on plastic sheets is a culmination of an extraordinarily productive 40 years and lets the viewer to see how the artist discovered from his 'abstract expressionist language' largely derived from his usage of solid areas to convey dimension and also from his unconventional color choices.

For the last two decades the artist has been living in Santiniketan, West Bengal. His swift images, often ironic and quirky, sometimes cartoon-sake, have a charge that touches the primordial sensors of the psyche. Always animated, the artist has built an image world on spin. The vivid illusion of constant movement in these paintings is paradoxically arresting, providing an entry point for deeper consideration. Large-scale figures dominate his compositions with an emphasis on differentiated, fluid blocks of color and simplified forms.

Art critic Kamala Kapoor notes in her accompanying essay: "Symbolic and affective sources of cultural identification, his references, sometimes mythic, at others urban, have remained archetypes of his own pictorial imagination. Mostly, the compulsive synergy of his line and color has a life that is indispensable to the subject being portrayed. The seemingly loose and certainly lively stroke that can even be lush, engages one further as the artist brings together his 'waywardly' real and imaginary images in a kind of graphic, at times subversive projection, caught mid-shot, then fractured in it's dispersions. The stories in his paintings are wall to wall as in certain Indian fresco painting conventions of the past. Can the artist's paintings be construed as depictions of social milieus or even problems? Are they proposing solutions? Certainly the subjects appear fictionalized, their emotional ramifications opened up. There is a plot, a dialogue, and a sense of drama that takes us inside the characters. In some of the 'Midnight Blues' series, for instance, the drama turns more overt with the dynamics that support ostensible subject matter in enactments verging on the sado-masochistic where, masked men brandish knives as women hurtle for cover. While in some of them from the same series, the artist tracks subtle gradations between melancholy and regret."

Take the several versions of the "Mirror" series, where, alternate states of mind and mood are explored. In these, narcissistic pleasures and disillusionments take center stage, as dreams and desires, work their way under the lacquered skin of the paint work, barely able to conceal the protagonist's mutual zones of vulnerability. The act of seeing is played with, almost manipulated. Even so, as in nature, even the most careful constructions often culminate in chaos, suggesting the futility of the human pursuit for predictable meaning and order

His still life studies are compositionally somewhat more contained and pictorially structured. Not above political irony, the artist presents "Bush-Blair Still Life", where, the former despot stares through hooded eyes and the latter blindly simpers as they oversee some sort of sacrificial ritual. There is no tentative tip-toeing around here as art targets the negative. On the other hand, an urbane feast for the eyes is presented in the still life 'Cat', all awash in golden yellow luminescence. Clearly, the 'zeitgeist' in Subramanyan's paintings, both still life and otherwise, has as much to do with materially enriched colors and the animation of edge and line as with just recognizable image and narration.

Subramanyan's paintings are noteworthy for 'their excess of contradictions': mirror images seek out opposites, faces become masks, and radiate feelings. Reality has a mysterious side, a metaphorical aspect. Through a constantly changing specificity of narratives that either come close or keep their distance, one experiences a remarkable combination of complexity and freedom.

In earlier times, a concourse of cats, dogs and birds dominated Subramanyan's urban jungles, their lines and colors staking out the territories of creative sign making. This time these 'true spectators in his dialogues between nature and culture' seem to be missing. Yet the feeling of relationship between nature and culture as a theme persists.

Subramanyan's control of linear, coloristic and structural energy is striking and affect emotively. His stories and scenes, both tacit and apparent, engage one at the level of comprehension, allusion and allegory. Their sensations of pictorial energy declare the positive and compelling power of the creative intellect and imagination. This is particularly manifested in his "golden mirror" reverse glass paintings which he first began painting in the late 1970's, and has returned to intermittently ever since. While acrylic has replaced glass over the years---as has plastic in the forthcoming show---the technique remains much the same as that employed in traditional Indian glass painting.

Kamala Kapoor sums up to say, "Subramanyan's works that resonate with a genuine if somewhat subversive vision, can only be fathomed up to a certain point. It is only when one gives up on them that the unfathomable opens up. Analogues of some abstract order may then come into play. And as the narratives blur into the inner worlds of imagination, what may surface could well be the co-ordinates of chance and meaning, meaningful chance or chance meanings, pivots around which Subramanyan's paintings have always revolved."

K. G. Subramanyan's recent work on view from December 3 to 25, 2003 at The Guild, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Colaba.

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